On Sunday, February 18, First Baptist unanimously affirmed Rev. Courtney Willis as our new Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation. Watch or read below for Courtney’s testimony from the service. And read more about Courtney and her ministry with us here.
It is such a joy to share a little bit of my story with you this morning.
My faith story is one of enthusiasm and certainty. Enthusiasm about growing to know God better, and certainty about sensing God’s presence at every step along the way. My love of church and scripture and worship is woven intricately among every thread of my life’s journey. For me, a relationship with God has been fundamental as far back as I have memories.
During worship as a little girl, I would draw pictures of the pastor preaching in the pulpit. When missionaries spoke in children’s church, I envisioned myself in the African bush telling the world about Jesus. Some kids let their imaginations run wild playing house, and I would make my friends play “communion” with grape juice and saltines.
Some of you may remember hearing this story of one Wednesday night when I was about 10, at the end of GA’s (our church’s Girls in Action group), my leader gave us all a toll-free phone number we could call to find out the name of a Baptist missionary whom we could pray for each day. I went home clutching that piece of paper, hardly able to wait until I could call the number the following day.
I had recently gotten a phone in my room, and I knew that 1-800 numbers were okay to call and didn’t incur any long distance charges. So I carefully placed the paper with the phone number beside that phone so I could get to it easily, and I proceeded to call and call and call. For years, I called that number religiously every day. I listened to what must have been an answering machine recording letting me know the men and women that I could pray for as they served God around the world. Every Friday I was frustrated because the recording would list three people to pray for since they only changed the message during the work week. I had to pray for the same three names all weekend and painfully wait until I could call again on Monday!
I just knew that downstairs, my parents were also calling that number to get the name of the missionary of the day.
A few years ago I was talking to my parents about my childhood at church and I casually said, “You know, that number everyone called to get the names of missionaries so you could pray for them on their birthdays?” They responded, “What number? What missionaries?” For about 30 years, I was confident that everyone in my church was calling that number every day just like I was.
Apparently I was the only one calling the number. Which explains why one day I called and the number just didn’t work anymore. There was no warning. No extra missionaries to pray for. It was heartbreaking.
I was so fortunate to grow up in a church and family who taught me the importance of prayer, of missions, of scripture, but who also gave me a safe place to ask hard faith questions. They taught me about a God who is big enough to handle our questions and mysterious enough to leave us with even more. And they taught me that in the midst of those questions, ultimately God’s love is always the answer.
It was through my church and things like Sunday School and GA’s, where I began to see and understand GOD’s vision for the world. I heard about missionaries and ministers and folks who were doing radical things to share God’s love. And it was at 7 years old, that I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God was calling me to love radically, and to share God’s radical love with the world. God was calling me to vocational ministry. And it did not stop with a calling at 7. God has spent the last 30 something years showing me even more of God’s heart for the world and showing me more ways that I can share it with those whom I encounter. God was and is calling me, not just to believe, but to move in response to that belief.
Last week, Alan mentioned driving the church van at one of his first churches. I think this must be an initiation all young ministers have to go through to prove their calling. You can ask a minister all about Greek, systematic theology and hermeneutics, but I wonder sometimes if it really comes down to one’s ability to drive the church van.
The summer after I graduated from college, I served as the youth ministry intern at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. My first week of work, the youth minister asked me to help her put some things in the church vans for an upcoming trip we would be taking. We walked outside, across the street, to a small, hidden-away parking lot the church owned specifically for the vans. It was there that I realized we were going to have to move the vans to the bigger parking lot in front of the church just as she threw a set of keys my way.
I am quite sure panic washed over my face. I drove a 2-door sedan. I had no idea if I could drive a van! But, I jumped in the front seat, took a deep breath, and put the key in the ignition. Not only did I have to drive the church van, but there was one way out of the parking lot- a tiny alley-way just slightly bigger than the van itself. I turned into the alley and slowly navigated out toward the main road. It felt as if the brick walls on either side of me were getting closer together as I inched forward. I could have sworn that the clouds were getting darker and the branches of nearby trees were growing thicker in an ominous threat to my newly discovered van-driving skills. But the youth minister I was working with had no hesitations that I could drive the van. She had handed me the keys. She had driven her van ahead of mine- showing me the exact path to follow. So I kept looking forward, took my time, and kept pressing the gas to make it out of the alley unscathed.
And isn’t that how all of our faith journeys are? 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. “
We all have a church van to drive. We often feel like the walls are closing in on all sides. We feel the pressures of the world all around us. And yet, God longs for us to look ahead down the path God has prepared for us. God gives us with the keys- the tools to move through the alleyway.
In my call to ministry, I love helping folks learn to drive their own church vans- to live faithful lives filled with the Holy Spirit, driven by the grace of Jesus, and equipped with the knowledge that comes from knowing Scripture. I have learned that a life following Christ is full of chances to take leaps of faith when I might be unsure of myself. There are always opportunities to know God more intimately, to follow God’s leading into the world, and be a faithful servant motivated by a God who loves me deeply and wants me to share that love with each person I come in contact with.
This morning I met the Cox’s. They said that when they moved here they were looking for a kindergarten and found the preschool here at First Baptist. They were told there weren’t really any more spots, but the kindergarten told them they would “make room for them”, and that’s why they stayed here. We each have the opportunity to be people who always “make room” in our hearts. Our congregation has the chance to be the kind of place that always “makes room”. We can “make room” for those that Christ did- the broken, the oppressed, the stranger.
Yesterday, I was driving just north of town and passed a church with a fantastic sign out front. It said, “Love everyone. I’ll sort the rest out later. God.”
That is the road I’m on.
Each morning, I sit in the front seat, take a deep breath, put the keys in the ignition, and follow God’s leading down that road toward love. I hope you’ll join me in learning more about that road and how to follow it with enthusiasm and certainty.